Free Markets, Free People

Defense: cut cost, not capability

One of the eternal claims of the left is that there is much that can be cut from the defense budget. Shockingly they’re right. At least in a meta-sense. There isn’t a government bureaucracy anywhere in government that can’t comfortably be cut, despite claims to the contrary. Defense is no exception. Secretary Gates plan to cut 100 billion from the Defense budget is both necessary and laudable.

But here’s the catch. Those cuts must address fat, not muscle. They must cut costs, not capability. We must address any cuts made carefully and in a way we ensure our future viability in a very dangerous world.

We also need to understand that whether we like it or not, we have the dominant leadership role in the free world. Abdication of that role could have catastrophic results for our nation and our allies and, in fact, for freedom around the globe.

Those are the facts.  And we need to understand that when the defense budget is addressed, a scalpel instead of a meat axe should be used. While it will be tempting to cut expensive programs as a means of achieving short term spending goals, their absence could, at some point in the future, lead to our defeat.

Take the F35 program for an example. The F35, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is a 5th generation fighter that will replace many of our present day 4th generation fighters, such as the F16, F15 Strike Eagle and A10 (all designed in the ‘60s and ‘70s).  It is an expensive airplane. But there are reasons why it is expensive and those reasons are sometimes hard to explain to those only focused on the bottom line. But the fact that our potential enemies, Russia and China, are busily developing versions of their own 5th gen fighters should tell us about what sort of priority a program like that should have. Scrap heap isn’t one of them.

A fifth generation fighter is quite an upgrade from the 4th gen fighters we now have in that they include advanced stealth, exceptional agility and maneuverability, sensor/ information fusion, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment.  And these result in far greater survivability, situational awareness, and effectiveness for war fighters, as well as improved readiness and lower support costs.

The cost of the F35 appears higher than 4th gen fighters because the F35 comes as a package with all its mission equipment included on board – an important point that is rarely seen in discussions of cost. This puts the cost in line with current 4th Generation aircraft which do not carry their mission equipment in their price  (Targeting Pods, Jammer, EW System, Fuel Tanks, Infrared Search and Track and other systems). Currently that price is about $60 million a copy in 2010 dollars. And Lockheed Martin, the supplier, has transitioned to that fixed cost per copy 2 years early.

Many would like to argue that austerity precludes paying for such programs. They claim we can do this on the cheap by modifying 4th gen fighters and extend their life.  But consider this –in combat configuration, the F-35 outperforms all advanced fourth-generation aircraft in top end speed, loiter, subsonic acceleration and radius. Additionally, it is comparable or better than the best fourth generation fighters in aerodynamic performance in all within-visual-range categories and the F-35 outperforms all fourth-generation aircraft in both the “Within Visual Range” and “Beyond Visual Range” air-to-air combat arenas.

The  5th gen fighters of Russia and China will also out- perform today’s fighters. The question you have to ask is would you want your son or daughter in the cockpit of an upgraded 4th generation fighter facing that sort of threat? The obvious answer is no.

Defense cuts must be made. That’s the reality of this era of austerity. But it doesn’t have to be a conflicting priority to fielding the best for our future national defense and security obligations. Intelligence and the future needs of the nation must be factored in to the cuts anticipated in the defense budget or we could put our military and our nation at a terrible disadvantage in coming years.



26 Responses to Defense: cut cost, not capability

  • The problem with the F-35 is that it could be ‘easy meat’ for any 5th gen fighter/S300+ class SAMS. It doesn’t have the stealth, speed, altitude, or maneuverability of an F-22. Most of the air to air features, missile loadouts mainly, won’t be showing up until the 2020’s.
    It’s got good features but when you’re approaching F-22 costs for a plane that isn’t in production and still has bugs I rather go with the -22.

    • The F22 is an air superiority fighter. The F35 is a “strike fighter”, i.e. dedicated to CAS (look at the aircraft it’s replaceing). You need both of them.

  • When the order comes down from the top to cut costs, fat or muscle makes no difference.  Its a pipe dream to believe it will happen otherwise.
    And even that is based on the belief there isn’t  a secondary agenda to cut capability and effectiveness.  Something I believe is fully in effect.  The Left in this country would love for the US to not be able to field an effective offense on its own.  Which ultimately means no pro-democracy forces in the world being able to field and effective offense at all.  But that detail escapes them.
    Or maybe it doesn’t.

  • really f35 does CAS huh? maybe if you believe the service that 2 lost accountably of nukes…

  • The war you are fighting right now is against someone with no fighters of any generation.   $60 million will buy 1x F-35 or 5x Chinooks or 100x Cougar MRAPs. 

    • Let’s not plan for the next war by assuming it will be just like this one. Air Superiority is really vital and is something we don’t want to have any problems with. Imagine trying to reinforce Taiwan if our ships were being hit from the air.
      Maybe we could go around to our allies and talk to those with GDP defense spending below 4% and ask them to pony up half the upkeep of a carrier group or we close the carrier group.

    • Yes, it will… which does one absolutely no good if the opposition has MiG-29’s and T-72’s.

      Defense planning is NEVER easy, because one never knows what the threat will be.  While an excellent case can be made that it doesn’t make sense to put all of one’s eggs in a costly basket, it also isn’t smart to either try to get by on the cheap OR try to refight the last war.

      At any rate, I think we can all agree that we should have enough men and weapons to deter our potential enemies and, if deterrence fails, defeat them quickly and decisively.  That’s not a cheap proposition, and it’s made even more expensive by the fact that, given the low rate of military spending among our allies, we’re pretty much on our own for the foreseeable future.

      • One of the reasons that we aren’t facing anyone with the necessity of using 5th gen fighters is because we presently hold a technological edge. Give that up and see how long those who have developed 5th gen fighters and the like to decide they have to, oh say, take Georgia into the fold or reunite Taiwan with the homeland.

        • For some reason, after about 1805 no one seriously took on the Royal navy until 1916, and when that happened it was actually by accident. And the dominance of the Royal Navy is a key in the (relative) peace and prosperity of the period.

  • I think that shutting down F-22 production was a big mistake. I also think we should have allowed the Aussies and Brits to buy F-22s.

    I recall Democrat candidate Hart, and his opposition to expensive DoD programs back in the 80s. One of his tragets was the M1 Abrams tank. Hart had some interesting ideas, even going into discussing the militia, but he was mostly proved wrong by events.

    Cutting waste and fraud in government projects is difficult. Much of the fraud fighting methods drive up costs.

    • I don’t disagree at all Don. It was a big mistake. The F22/F35 were developed to be complimentary aircraft fulfilling different but critical roles. Most don’t seem to understand that point when they try to denigrate the F35 as not being up to a role it isn’t designed to fulfill.

  • Bruce,
    I agree with your general comments.  But saying, “cut fat, not muscle” is relatively easy.  If we aren’t cutting expensive programs like the JSF (which I agree is a vital program to maintain), what specifically would you cut (other than just general “cut waste” comments)?  Troop levels?  What?  I also agree that a large part of our advantage is technological superiority and that absolutely has to be maintained (or preferably increased).

    • The procurement process sucks. It is awful and horrendously expensive. Many of the cost overruns that are attributed to defense contractors actually originate in the services as they continually change the mission profile of the equipment they want to purchase instead of doing the front-end work, making a decision as to what the equipment will do and getting a well thought out and detailed cost analysis for that configuration. The JSF, littoral combat ship and others are prime examples of that mess.

      Competition – there are too many sole source contracts let that should be put out on a competitive basis. It would save billions.

      Focus – we lack a strategic focus on what the armed forces should look like in say 2050. That means we’re trying but maintain wide but expensive focus that will cover every contingency. We need to have a blueprint that describes that force and builds the components necessary to achieve it. But it also means we may, of necessity, forego some less important and marginal missions. Again, billions to be saved.

      Overseas bases – this is ripe for review. We have and maintain bases we just don’t need anymore overseas. Those forces could be repatriated (at a much reduced cost of maintaining) and those bases closed or turned over to the host country at a good cost savings.

      There are a ton more, but those for starters.

  • For CAS, we should build more A-10s, and <I>let the damned Army and Marines fly them</i>.
    The Air Force will raise holy hell, but should be ignored on that.
    The F-35/F-22 debate is one thing, but neither of them can replace the slow and low A-10 for the thing it does best.
    (And part of the problem is that slow-and-low CAS is deeply un-sexy and involves close coordination with the ground troops.
    So of course the Air Force hates it. Which is why they should be forced to give up the fixed-wing attack monopoly and focus on their air-superiority and bombing role.)
    (Also, on the 5th Generation thing – remember that it’s not just a plane that wins dogfights [or missile shootouts] and makes for air superiority. It takes well-trained pilots. And that means lots of time in the air and a culture of air combat training.
    The US has that. Israel has that. The Russians have it, to an extent. Nobody else really does, as far as I know.
    China might like to have it, but I don’t know if they feel it’s worth the expense.)

    • The Brits “have it”. Probably the Canadians, Aussies, and Germans as well. My understanding is that India is pretty good these days as well.

    • Uh, no, you can’t build more 4th gen strike fighters in a 5th gen world. That’s suicide.

      Israel understands that. I expect them to develop their own 5th gen air superiority fighter to complement their recent F35 strike fighter purchase.

      • Mr. Bruce,
         Actually, the Isrealis are moving to a manned force of just 200 fighter aircraft by 2020, consisting of F-15I’s, F-16I’s and F-35’s. The IAF’s plan is to have nearly 200 UCAV’s in various roles by that time.  This was mentioned in the Sept 6 issue of AW&ST.  The fact they are moving to such a large for of UCAV’s tells me where much of the future of air combat and the like is going as the IAF is very innovative and being ahead of the curve. 

         The PAK-50 will most likely not be built in any large numbers, and even then aircrew training comes in to play. The Russians are fair in their training, but there is no evidence the PLAAF/PLAN aircrews are anywhere near the Western level of training in tactics and the like. Authoritarian regimes tend to have problems with the training of their forces since too much independent thinking is not welcomed.

         Also, there is, at present, no concrete evidence the Chinese are developing a fabled 5th Gen bird. 

         I do agree with the above comments relating to the F-22 – we should build at least a few hundred more. And yep, scrap the 35, transfer A-10’s to the Army/USMC, and reform the badly broken acquisition process.    

        • I don’t agree. The F35 will fill a critical role and in a 5th gen environment (that includes radar and SAM). 4th gen strike fighters are much more vulnerable in that environment than is one like the F35. Upgrading an aircraft (4th gen) so that it looks like a basketball instead of a beachball on radar isn’t a good strategy when you can build one that looks like a golf ball instead. Plus, compared to 4th gen fighters, the F35’s ability to defend itself in a 5th gen environment is superior to any 4th gen strike fighter (assuming air superiority).

          As for the Israelis – what they say publicly and what they do secretly are obviously something completely different. I’ll stick with my prediction that somewhere in the near future we’ll begin hearing about an Israeli 5th gen air superiority fighter.

          As for the A-10 – current law really doesn’t allow fixed wing assets in Army aviation. I’d have no problem with such a transfer but the AF mafia wouldn’t stand still for it.

          • Sir,
            You need to read this article. Sweetman is on the money. I would not be surprised to now see multiple international partners (rightly!) look elsewhere, either at the superb JAS-39NG, or the Eurofighter, or perhaps even the Rafale. The F-35 is going to be seriously late, with major technical problems still to be resolved, and not ever built in anything like “affordable” numbers.
            We’d be better off taking the IAF’s approach.
            The F-35 should have been smoked years ago, and the F-22 line kept open.  With the election of Rand Paul and others like him I can see even the sacred cow of defense spending getting some long overdue scrutiny.
            As for the Israelis,  they don’t have the industrial base to build a combat aircraft. Remember the Lavi? Great plane, but not affordable.

          • But the F22 line hasn’t been kept open, has it? So that’s a moot point. Yes the F35 is behind schedule and over cost. That happens often in generational fighter development. Can it be better done? Aboslutely. But that doesn’t change the need. The baby doesn’t need to be thrown out with the bath water.

            As for the Isrealis, I believe their 5th gen fighter development will be leveraged off of their experience with the F35. The affordability problem will take a back seat to the need, especially if other 5th gen fighters show up in the region.

            The article is indeed correct and there are a number of corrections that need to be made – but it doesn’t change the need for such an aircraft.

  • Bruce if you for serious about cutting waste why not cut the f-35 ? billions of dollars over budget and 5 years late. yet you still support the program?
    maybe you should read
    and stop the shilling for lockmart.

    • I’ve read extensively about it – for instance, the fly-away price is now a fixed 60 mil a copy – 2 years early. That’s comparable with the cost of a mission equipped 4th gen fighter. Now you tell me, slntax, what’s the role of an F35? It isn’t “air superiority”. It is the delivery of ordnance on target. So comparing it to competing air superiority 5th gen fighters is nonsense but something those that don’t know what they’re talking about constantly do. If you want to do that the comparison should be with the F22 whose job it will be to establish air superiority so the 5th gen STRIKE FIGHTER can do its job. That’s precisely how we do it today with 4th gen fighters and it shouldn’t be any different in the future with 5th gen fighters.

      • i understand the difference between a bomb truck and a air superiority fighter. my problem is the constant rewards that lockmart gets everytime they miss a deadline and jack up the price. the real problem is the defense industries procurement methods, just look at the airborne fueler debacle. there are possible alternatives like the f15 silent eagle and buying more f22 with small diameter bombs which enable the f22 have bombing capabilities. but we all know jobs in congressional districts are on the line etc etc, btw the real future in mil flight is drones, thats were all the smart money is going.